Part 1

I understand 探す to be to search for something (general)

and 捜す to be to search for something lost

But do people actually care about the difference in nuance when they use it?

I mean do people use them interchangeably like using 捜す for searching (general) and 探す for searching for something lost?

Part 2

Do japanese school children learn the kanji 捜す first or 探す ?


3 Answers 3


Together with many other questions on this website tagged as 'homophonic-kanji', this is a case where in ancient Japanese when there was no writing system, there was no distinction among these words (i.e., they were a single word), but Chinese had finer distinction, and when Chinese characters were brought into Japanese, different Chinese characters came to be used to describe the same Japanese word depending on the context to match the distinction in Chinese. As a result, they came to be pronounced the same but written differently, and even after thousands of years, in native Japanese speaker's mind, it is often a subtle thing whether they are different words or not. People actually often do have problems distinguishing these, and there are dictionaries and software tools that assist you to distinguish them in kana-kanji conversion.

Quite often, there is a character that is used generally, this case as you point out, which stands as the representative of the words in the group. The character for a specific meaning can usually be replaced by a character of the generic one, but not the other way around.

is taught at the sixth grade. is taught at the seven grade or later. In general, the kanji with the general usage is understood to be easier than the ones with the specific meanings.

  • 2
    when you say people actually often do have problems distinguishing these, you do mean native japanese speakers?
    – Pacerier
    Jul 26, 2011 at 18:29

I was taught that 探 is used for "things" and 捜 is used for people.

  • 探求 【たんきゅう】 → quest, pursuit
  • 探究 【たんきゅう】 → inquiry, (re)search
  • 探査 【たんさ】 → investigation

  • 捜査 【そうさ】 → criminal investigation, search
  • 捜索 【そうさく】 → a search for, manhunt

Although after researching this a bit, it does seem that the latter also has the nuance of something being lost or gone, and the former can pertain to something desired.

In my experience, people only seems to respect the nuances as they pertain to either "person" or "thing"; but even then, not super carefully.

  • 2
    +1 Attacking it from the on'yomi angle might be the best way to define the difference between these two. Jul 22, 2011 at 18:04

I was watching an anime in which at some point a letter is shown. The situation is like the brother of the reader of this letter is hiding a card in a shopping mall and the reader must find it. A card is obviously a thing and not a living being.

So, it seems that 捜 is used in a "hunt" way, searching things or people that you don't know where they are but you need/want to find them. Not just lost things, because in this case, the reader is not the owner of this card so he never lost it.

This is the full sentence:

このショッピングモールの中に一人だけカードのありかを知ってる人がいるよ テレパシーを使って捜してみてね

Hope it helps.

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